UPDATE 11. January 2020: Where Jaguars Are Killed, New Common Factor Emerges: Chinese Investment

Fang trafficking to China is putting Bolivia’s jaguars in jeopardy

By - 26. January 2018

  • Residents in Bolivia’s Sena community say that they can sell a jaguar canine for about $215 on the Chinese market.
  • According to Bolivian authorities, the fangs are valued in the Asian market at prices as high as cocaine.
  • Between 2013 and 2016, 380 jaguar canines were seized by Bolivian authorities, which correlates to 95 jaguars killed.
  • Residents say an influx of Chinese companies to build roads and bridges in Bolivia is contributing to increased trafficking of jaguar parts. However, authorities deny these claims.

BOLIVIA — A skull rests in the hands of a hunter. It is a jaguar’s skull that has all of its teeth in place, except the four fangs that the jaguar used to sink into the necks of its prey – until Jesús shot him with an old shotgun in the Bolivian Amazon.

“For the tiger, you have to aim at the heart to leave it dry,” says the hunter, boasting of his aim.

Jesús, like many other hunters in the Bolivian jungle, usually uses the word “tiger” to refer to the jaguar (Panthera onca). He killed this particular jaguar in the thicket of a forest that he is very familiar with.

Jesús said he was unaware of the existence of laws that prohibit the hunting of wildlife. Photo by Clovis de la Jaille

Jesús claims that he killed the jaguar three months ago because it was about to attack him, and that he shot it dead from about 30 meters away. He also says he would do the same thing again, because two Chinese citizens visited him in his home in Sena, in the Pando Department, to “open his eyes” and offer him $215 per fang. He also says that he sold them to them generously because he had never seen so much money in the same place. It surprised him that someone would pay so much money for a few jaguar fangs that were worth nothing to him.

In order to be sent to China, jaguar fangs are camouflaged in keychains. Photo by Clovis de la Jaille

Sena is a town in a corner of northern Bolivia, whose original inhabitants were of Tacana, Cavineño, Araona, and Ese Ejja origin. Between a small church and a karaoke bar called Calamina, a man named Jesús holds up the skull of a jaguar that he killed. He is unaware that Bolivian laws punish those who kill wild animals listed as “Vulnerable” by The Red Book of Threatened Vertebrate Fauna of Bolivia with up to six years in jail.

Jesús was unaware that the price of jaguar fangs, just like Bolivian cocaine, is worth 10 times more in China’s markets. He also didn’t know that the illegal hunting of the jaguar is threatening populations in forests in the Chaqueña Region, in the Bolivian lowlands,and in the northern Bolivian Amazon. These are places where the jaguar has always fought for its existence. For decades, jaguars have had to escape the bullets of hunters who kill them for their fur, which is highly valued in international markets. Jaguars have also lost habitat to increases in the agricultural, forestry and ranching industries.

In his four decades of life, Jesús has encountered a jaguar six times. His shots have been accurate every time. Photo by Clovis de la Jaille

Now, the jaguar has a new enemy. Until 2014, the trafficking of its fangs was a silent phenomenon in the communities of Santa Cruz, Beni, La Paz, and Pando, close to jungles and parks where the animals live. The jaguar is being pursued by networks of Chinese traffickers, in coordination with some Bolivians, in order to kill the animal and take its fangs, testicles and claws. In some Chinese markets, jaguar testicles are valued at the price of gold and are said to increase men’s sexual well-being and cure diseases that traditional scientific medicine cannot alleviate.

According to The Red Book of Threatened Vertebrate Fauna of Bolivia, the jaguar (Panthera onca) is in a vulnerable state. The exploding markets for their fur, fangs, claws, whiskers, penises, and testicles increases hunters’ interest in jaguars. Photo by Fuad Landíva

The jaguar fangs are also wanted for aesthetics. In China and other Asian countries, people wear fang pendants on their necks as a symbol of status and power. This is known by the government and ecological authorities in China.

The presence of a mafia in Bolivia that is encouraging the killing of jaguars, and of a growing Chinese market that fuels the trafficking of their products, is no longer a secret for the Vice Minister of the Environment and Water nor for the General Directorate of Biodiversity and Protected Areas. It is also known by forest police, the National Post Office of Bolivia (Ecobol), the directors of some natural parks, and another municipal office for communities near an area from where jaguar parts are trafficked. The epicenter of the trafficking is Trinidad, which is in Bolivia’s Beni Department, and reaches the Sena community in the Pando Department.

This group of institutions and authorities has made a series of recent discoveries. Between 2013 and 2016, the General Directorate of Biodiversity and Protected Areas, with the help of forest police and Ecobol, seized a total of 380 jaguar fangs. This correlates to the deaths of at least 95 jaguars. Evidence of trafficking has been found in Rurrenabaque, San Borja, Santa Rosa, and Reyes in the Beni Department, as well as the airports in Santa Cruz and La Paz. These airports serve as exit points to China. According to Rodrigo Herrera, a wildlife specialist from the Directorate of Biodiversity, a jaguar’s four fangs, 10 claws, fur and genitals fetches between $2,000 to $3,000 in China. In Asian markets, the price can reach $20,000. This price is comparable to cocaine trafficking; in Bolivia, one kilogram of cocaine is worth about $2,500, but can reach a value of $25,000 in international markets.

Bolivia’s Forest and Environmental Police (POFOMA) confiscated 181 jaguar fangs from 11 operations in Santa Cruz. Photo courtesy of Ecobol

A declaration of war

Teresa Pérez, Director of Biodiversity and Protected Areas, is leading a fight against the traffickers and those who encourage the killing of the jaguars. In 2014, she began her efforts after an investigation revealed that demand from China was leading the trafficking.

Pérez conducted a raid on the home of a Chinese citizen in the tourist town Rurrenabaque, which she believes eliminated one of the main traffickers of jaguar fangs. However, she says she was not supported by the judicial system, whose judges and prosecutors, according to Pérez, made much of the evidence that may have incriminated the traffickers disappear.

Traffickers are camouflaged among other passengers who visit the places where jaguars live. Photo by Clovis de la Jaille

 Rodrigo Herrera, who also works with Pérez, says that the computer and graphic material seized from the Chinese citizen in Rurrenabaque have disappeared. This leaves Pérez and Herrera with doubts about the judicial system, or at least about the chain of custody of those pieces of evidence. “We have a copy that, strangely, we were prevented from showing in the court that followed the case,” Herrera said.

However, the Minister of the Environment and Water set up 14 criminal proceedings against eight Chinese citizens and two Bolivians. They were confronted with products from jaguars they had killed before they were mailed to China.

Most of the people who send the shipments to China are Chinese citizens who live in Bolivia. Photo courtesy of Ecobol

 Additionally, there was a criminal proceeding against a Bolivian woman who encouraged the hunting of jaguars through social media. There were also proceedings against two speakers on the radio, one in Reyes and one in San Borja, who promoted the sale of wild animal parts and offered money in exchange for “tiger fangs.”

The laws sing

Law 1333 of the Environment, and Article 223 of the Political Constitution of the State, have been enforced more strongly since 2013. This is when it was discovered that jaguars were being hunted for their fangs, claws and fur.

The first indications of trafficking began to appear in the form of flyers stuck on walls and poles in towns close to Amazonian nature reserves. There were also advertisements that let Indigenous and farming communities know that “tiger fangs” were being bought in good condition for good prices. Through these messages, traffickers invited interested people to come to certain lodging accommodations and ask for “such a person” to make the transaction.

Over radio stations in Rurrenabaque and San Borja, similar announcements were broadcast that were discovered by the Directorate of Biodiversity. The Directorate decided to take immediate measures and prosecute the owners of the stations for allowing the messages to be broadcast. On Dec. 11, 2014, a proceeding was begun against the Eco radio station in Reyes, and on Sept. 20, 2017, a complaint was formalized against the station “The Voice of the Farmer” of San Borja.

During an interview at the radio station “The Voice of the Farmer,” half a block from the main square of San Borja, press manager Erwin Escalante said that he is aware of the laws that protect wildlife. He said that one morning, a person arrived to ask if they wuold issue a statement encouraging the killing of jaguars. “But we did not broadcast that text. The trial really calls my attention, and the situation really worries me,” Escalante said. He also stated that in San Borja and surrounding areas, “it’s normal that jaguar fangs are commercialized, along with the fangs of other animals.”

Erwin Escalante is the press manager of the radio station “The Voice of the Farmer” of San Borja, Bolivia. Photo by Clovis de la Jaille

 The traffickers

Encouraging the killing of jaguars through radio broadcasts is only one of the methods used by traffickers. Within this ring of trafficking, there are also small buyers who are dedicated to going through rural communities asking if “anyone has tiger fangs,” tempting residents with money.

Marcos Uzquiano is the interim director of Madidi National Park in San Buenaventura in La Paz Department. Uzquiano remembers that he once followed a woman from San Borja who was known to buy fangs and maintain ties with Chinese citizens. He followed her through various towns until stopping her in Ixiamas, in La Paz Department. He brought her to a prosecutor, and she admitted that she had fangs in her possession.

“She pulled out five objects and put them on the table. The prosecutor asked me what the crime was for taking fangs from an animal. I filed the formal accusation, but she was released within 24 hours and they returned her phone to her, where she had photos of skulls and fangs that she had sent to a Chinese citizen who, according to her, works for one of the companies that is constructing the San Ignacio-El Sena Highway,” said a visibly angry Uzquiano.

Marcos Uzquiano has worked for Bolivia’s National Protected Areas Service (SERNANP) for 15 years. Photo by Clovis de la Jaille

 Authorities from the Directorate of Biodiversity have denied that the Chinese citizens who traffic the jaguar fangs have any relation to the companies building highways and bridges between Trinidad and towns in the Pando Department. However, various hunters, Indigenous leaders, and farmers from Santa Cruz, Beni, and Pando agree that the demand for fangs has increased greatly since the Chinese companies responsible for the construction began to arrive in the area.

Ángela Núñez, a biologist who specializes in wildlife conservation and management, agrees with this idea. She alerted international media that she believes that due to the growing trade links between Bolivia and China, a large number of Chinese citizens are promoting the illegal hunting of the jaguar and creating illegal trafficking networks.

 

 

Law 1333, in Article 111, states that a person who incites, promotes, captures, or commercializes hunting products will be punished with two years in prison. Photo courtesy of Ecobol

International concerns

Núñez told the BBC that she began to notice the problem when she worked at the General Directorate of Biodiversity and Protected Areas in the Ministry of the Environment. Since leaving the position in 2015, she has been dedicated to confronting trafficking.

Núñez estimates that 140 jaguars have been killed to satiate the demand of Chinese markets, and that the problem is most apparent in Madidi National Park.

Evidence supporting this claim includes the discovery of 300 jaguar products, in 16 shipments, seized by the Bolivian postal service since 2014. All the shipments were destined for China, and 14 of them were sent by Chinese citizens working in Bolivia.

In China, jaguar fangs are in high demand. They are used in medicine for their supposed curative properties, as aphrodisiacs and as jewelry. Photo courtesy of Ecobol

 In the camp of a company that is constructing a road, a Chinese worker agreed to comment on this issue. “We don’t buy them now; it’s been many years. I believe that three years ago some Chinese people did, but not anymore; it’s prohibited. [Those who work in] the environment have told us that we can’t buy them, and that it’s [a] grave [offense]. Not now.”

A Bolivian citizen who was also in the camp and worked for the company defended the Chinese citizens working on the road. “It’s more the hunters who come to offer [the products], but they do not buy them because it is prohibited.”

In the camps of Chinese companies in eastern Bolivia, workers deny engaging in jaguar trafficking. Photo by Clovis de la Jaille

 Rubén Laime, Director of the Environment in the Riberalta municipality, is an invited guest at an ecology fair organized by an educational center. His goal there, just like at various other environmental educational programs, is to raise awareness about the importance of the wildlife in the Amazon.

Laime speaks of hunting in general: the hunting of deer, reptiles, monkeys, snakes, and turtles in order to sell them in the markets of Riberalta. He knows that in years past, jaguars were killed simply for their fur. Only recently did he learn about the networks of traffickers who kill them for their fangs to sell in China.

Laime feels as though his hands are tied. He says he is a lone ranger who can do little for poaching. His greatest regret is that there are not any forest police in towns surrounding the jungle who could perform operations to stop the trafficking. He has tried to work with management and with the civil guard, but says that very little has been accomplished.

Few police

Laime isn’t mistaken. The forest police were nowhere to be seen when reporters visited Riberalta in 2017. The only ones there seem to be are stationed hundreds of miles from Riberalta, in Trinidad, the capital of Beni Department. An in general, there are very few forest police; of the five officers who were once dedicated exclusively to combating the trafficking of wildlife, only two remain. Those two officers cover an extensive territory, which lacks transportation routes and is now travelled by traffickers who see collecting jaguar fangs as a profitable activity.

In other communities in Bolivia, like San Borja, San Ignacio, Rurrenabaque, San Buenaventura, Reyes, Santa Rosa, Sena, and in the Yata, residents report not seeing forest authorities for some time.

Posts on social media encourage the killing of the jaguars in the Bolivian Amazon. Photo by Jorge Uechi

 For all of Bolivia’s 424,164 square miles, there are only 50 police officers in charge of protecting wildlife. They are not assigned to provinces, but instead to the capital cities of the nine departments, according to Wálter Andrade Sanjinés, the director of the Forest and Environmental Police of La Paz.

Fortunato Pachacopa, who is responsible for the environment in Rurrenabaque, has been disappointed by the lack of forest police in his municipality. He knows that Law 1333 allows him to fight against the trafficking of wildlife and the sale of their products.

However, it’s impossible to change the world with only a law. Pachacopa says he has had little support in trying to do his job. He recalled how on one Sunday last year, he tried to confiscate various wildlife products that were being sold at a fair. “They almost lynched me. This thing is serious; people live off of this. They bring armadillo meat [and meat] from [other] wild animals. I found wallets made of jaguar, lizard belts, and armadillo and wild pig meat. I didn’t find jaguar fangs because I know that they now export them. I tried to explain to them that the law prohibits it, but they almost hit me. I had to quit what I was going to do. They are fed up and they are organized in associations,” Pachacopa said.

Pachacopa’s voice is calm, but he gestures resolutely as if he is going to get up and look for the traffickers.

The traffickers determine the price of the fangs according to their length in centimeters. They range from $150 to $400 per tooth. Photo by Clovis de la Jaille

 The voice of an accused

Pachacopa knows that the Minister of the Environment is following a judicial process against a Chinese citizen accused of buying fangs from hunters. “They say that he was trafficking parts of an animal. I found out when people from the Ministry of the Environment arrived on Nov. 17,” Pachacopa said.

Jabín is the name of the accused Chinese citizen. In Rurrenabaque, people say many things about Jabín, both good and bad. They say he is a man who lives off the business of trafficking jaguar fangs, who encouraged the killing of animals and offered good money to hunters and rural community members living in Madidi. They also say that Jabín has spent years doing this illegal activity, and that he was arrested and jailed for a few months. When he was released, he moved to a neighboring town in the Amazon.

Since learning that Jabín was in trouble with the law, restaurant owners in Rurrenabaque have disposed of the skulls, skeletons, and furs of wild animals that were being used as decorations on walls and counters. Ms. “Choca,” who owns a restaurant that Jabín frequented, has also taken precautions. The other day, when a hunter came to her door to offer a jaguar product, she said she stopped him in his tracks.

Jabín’s true name is Jian Fang Xiao. Uzquiano, the interim director of Madidi National Park, has put together an operation seeking to jail him. Now that Uzquiano is freely defending himself, he hasn’t taken his eyes off of Jabín.

Jabín lives in San Borja, a town in the Beni Department where the legal process against him is currently taking place. He resides in a rented house that includes an adjoining restaurant near the town’s edge.

Jian Fang Xiao, better known in Beni as Jabín, was imprisoned in Rurrenabaque for a year after being accused of jaguar fang trafficking. Photo by Clovis de la Jaille

 From inside a gate that overlooks a garden, Jabín says: “I don’t want to know anything. Right now we’re still in the trial. I don’t want to talk to anyone now. I am calm, all calm.”

“Is it true that you sell jaguar fangs to China?”

“I do not sell fangs,” Jabín said.

“And do you buy fangs from hunters?”

“Never. People just talk, that’s all. They talk, nothing else,” Jabín said.

“How long have you lived in Bolivia?”

“15 years,” Jabín said.

 On the mafia’s trail

Sanjinés, the director of the Forest and Environmental Police of La Paz, has custody of 200 fangs, most of which were found in envelopes being sent to China. The senders gave false addresses such as Cochabamba and Santa Cruz.

To investigate the traffickers, Andrade shares intelligence with informants. He discovered that some traffickers trap and then shoot the jaguars, and that, right there in the middle of the jungle, they pull out their fangs with knives and pliers.

A wildlife rights activist shows jaguar fangs that were seized from a trafficker. Photo by Clovis de la Jaille

Andrade knows that the trafficking of fangs has changed from “modus operandi,” and is not as open and clear as it was a few months ago, when the transactions were advertised over the radio. “Now, this doesn’t occur anymore. Now they do it with more caution,” Andrade said.

Teresa Pérez, the Director of Biodiversity and Protected Areas, is preparing a “true blow” to disrupt the large network of traffickers, thanks to all the information that has been collected in recent years. “We have identified this network. There are [Bolivian] nationals and Chinese involved,” she said.

Sent by mail

Willma Pérez, of Bolivia’s postal service, Ecobol, also is doing her part in the fight. Between March 15 and Nov. 11, 2016, she found 181 fangs that were being sent in envelopes and packages to China. They were camouflaged in keychains, necklaces, rings, and boxes of chocolate. “When a suspicious envelope is found, we call the forest police and they come and confiscate it,” Pérez said.

Pérez also said that in 2017, there was not a single confiscation from the mail. This worries her because it suggests that the traffickers are no longer sending the fangs through Ecobol, but that they are now using other ways to transport the illegal products.

Public enemy

Vincent Vos is a Dutch citizen who has lived in Riberalta for 16 years. He is an investigator and environmental advocate who loves to observe jaguars when he goes into the jungle. He says he admires their powerful appearance, their fur, and their elegant walk that seems to suggest they are immortal.

Vos is aware that the jaguar is now being pursued for its fangs. This problem adds to the historically bad relationship between jaguars and ranchers, who hunt them under the pretext that they attack their heifers. Many ranchers work in areas where the jungle once reigned, where there were no cattle grazing in the meadows.

Four cowboys ride past on the side of the road from San Borja to San Ignacio. They are guiding a group of cows, bulls and calves. One of them has a shotgun that, according to him, is not loaded. “With it, I’ve killed a lot of jaguars,” he says. He makes a dull noise with his mouth to emulate the sound of an accurate shot.

There are hunters who say that they have been obligated to shoot jaguars because their own lives were in danger. Photo by Clovis de la Jaille

 He explains that jaguars have a habit of attacking heifers and killing them with their sharp teeth and claws. The jaguars then eat their prey near the farms. He says they know that the cowboys have revenge on their minds: they hunt jaguars not only with guns, but also with dogs trained to detect their scent. “We spend up to three days to find them, surround them, and eliminate them,” the cowboy said. “The dogs do their work and we do too; for them, it’s a feat.”

The hunting of wild animals is seen as just another daily activity in Santa Rosa. Photo by Clovis de la Jaille

 His job is to shoot when the jaguar is in front of him. After the jaguar is killed, farmers and hunters are content. The farmer is avenged, and the hunter gets the trophy: the jaguar’s four fangs and body, with its fur and claws that can be sold at the price of gold in the Bolivian Amazon.

 

This story is the result of a journalistic collaboration between Mongabay Latam and Bolivia’s El Deber. It first appeared in Spanish on Mongabay Latam on Jan. 15, 2017.  | Translated by Sarah Engel

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Where Jaguars Are Killed, New Common Factor Emerges: Chinese Investment

Poaching of the big cats is on the rise, and a new study links their slaughter to corruption as well as investment from Chinese companies.

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Nightly encounter with Bolivian Jaguars - Credit Sebastian Kennerknecht/Minden Pictures

In May 2019, a headless jaguar carcass turned up at a garbage dump in southern Belize. The killing, one in a series of similar incidents, added to local outrage and inspired authorities, private citizens and companies to offer a combined $8,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the jaguar killer.

More than just a national issue, the graphic killing in Belize seemed indicative of a rise in jaguar poaching across the species’ range, from Mexico to Argentina.

“I suspect for a long time it went unnoticed as authorities simply were not paying attention,” said Pauline Verheij, an independent wildlife crime specialist who has investigated the jaguar trade in Suriname and Bolivia in recent years. “Tackling wildlife crime in most if not all Latin American countries has had zero priority until only very recently.”

For several years, Ms. Verheij and others have warned that the jaguar trade appears to be on the rise, at the same time that the big cats are already threatened with extinction, primarily because of habitat loss and revenge killings for livestock predation. Experts in wildlife trafficking also saw that many of the jaguar cases were linked to Chinese citizens or destinations in China. In Bolivia, for example, authorities intercepted China-bound packages containing hundreds of jaguar canines, which are fashioned into jewelry. But evidence tying these observations together has been scattered and largely anecdotal.

Now, a study published this month in Conservation Biology provides a more complete overview of the illegal trade, bringing together data from all of Central and South America. The findings confirm that seizures of jaguar parts have increased tremendously throughout the region, and that private investment from China is significantly correlated with trafficking of the species.

“For the very first time, we have a big picture of what is happening in Central and South America regarding trade in jaguar body parts,” said Thaís Morcatty, a doctoral student in anthropology at Oxford Brookes University in England, and lead author of the study.

The findings suggest a parallel with poaching patterns seen in Southeast Asia and Africa, in which an increasing presence of businesses from China working on large development projects coincides with increasing legal and illegal wildlife trade, including of big cats.

“What we can learn from this is that the patterns we saw in Asia and then in Africa are now starting to emerge in South America,” said Vincent Nijman, a co-author also at Oxford Brookes University. “If there is demand, it will be fulfilled, even if you go to another continent on the other side of the world.”

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Jaguar canines confiscated en route to China in Bolivia in 2014. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“If we can catch this in the beginning, when trade is just increasing, we can change the course of things before it’s too late,” Ms. Morcatty added.

Jaguars have almost been poached to extinction in the past. During the 20th century, hunting for their fur nearly caused the species to disappear. The U.S. accounted for the majority of the jaguar trade, importing more than 23,000 jaguar skins in 1968 and 1969 alone. With jaguar populations plummeting even in remote regions of the Amazon, policymakers banned the big cats from international trade in 1975.

“In the past, we almost lost jaguars because of a very big hunting pressure in a short amount of time,” Ms. Morcatty said. “It’s taken decades of effort and investment from many countries and institutions to recover jaguar populations.”

Jaguars have slowly clawed back, to an estimated 60,000 to 170,000 animals today. But now they are in decline throughout much of their range. While poaching for the illegal trade may not be the primary driver of population losses, it could exacerbate other pressures, Ms. Morcatty said. Ranchers, for example, may be more inclined to kill jaguars on their property if they know they can earn money from the carcasses.

“We shouldn’t let this new threat combine with other threats we already have,” she said.

A similar dynamic is already playing out in Southern Africa. In South Africa, a growing legal trade in the skeletons of captive-bred lions exported to China may have created a new market for poached lion products.

Retaliatory killings of lions that have attacked livestock or people have always occurred in Southern Africa, but now “it’s not just a dead lion that was a problem animal, it’s a dead lion that’s had pieces taken off it and entered into the trade chain,” said Andrew Lemieux, a researcher at the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement. “There’s lots of money to be made.”

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A medicine shop selling animal skulls, including a jaguar’s, in the Belen Market of Iquitos in Peru. Credit Jason Edwards / National Geographic Image Collection, via Alamy

One of the earliest signs of the mounting threat in South America appeared in 2003, when a Chinese man working at a Chinese supermarket in Paramaribo, Suriname, approached a uniformed member of the country’s forestry service and asked him if he could bring him a jaguar.

“My contact told him it was illegal to kill jaguars,” Ms. Verheij said. “He was shocked that the man felt comfortable enough to ask a government official to do something illegal.”

For the official, the conversation ended there. But by 2005, rural hunters in Suriname were fielding orders for jaguar teeth and claws — often delivering the animal’s whole head to Chinese clients in the country’s capital. The buyers turned claws and teeth into pendants to sell at local Chinese-owned jewelry shops, or smuggled them back to China. Several Chinese restaurants in Suriname also began serving jaguar meat upon request. Eventually, entrepreneurial criminals graduated to sourcing entire jaguar carcasses to boil down into a product similar to the tiger bone paste that is used in Chinese medicine.

To estimate the extent to which the problem has grown, Ms. Morcatty and her colleagues searched news stories, technical reports and police records from 2012 through 2018 in all 19 Central and South American countries for mention of seized big cat parts. They found records for 489 seizure incidents representing around 1,000 big cats — primarily jaguars, but also some pumas and ocelots. They calculated that over just five years, the number of jaguars seized increased 200-fold.

“It’s quite remarkable,” Ms. Morcatty said.

Brazil accounted for the highest proportion of cases, followed by Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and Suriname. Most of the seizure records did not indicate the final destination or intended buyer, but Ms. Morcatty was able to definitively link 34 percent to China. China-related seizures contained 13 times the number of jaguar parts, on average, than those intended for the domestic market.

Dr. Lemieux, who was not involved in the research, said the new paper brings into view a region that is generally glossed over by wildlife trade experts. “If you look at the conservation playing field, South America — of all the continents besides Antarctica — gets very little attention,” he said.

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Theodore Roosevelt with a slain jaguar in Brazil in 1913. Credit American Museum of Natural History

Jaguars, likewise, tend to be overshadowed by tigers, lions and leopards, Dr. Lemieux said, but “the international trade in jaguars is definitely something that’s changing.”

Ms. Morcatty and her colleagues analyzed the seizure data against a variety of variables to identify factors that are likely driving the trade. Predictably — and serving as a control — the more jaguars present in a country, the higher the amount of jaguar trafficking. Also not surprisingly, they found that corruption and poverty are significantly associated with the illegal trade.

The second most significant variable after corruption was the direction of private Chinese investment, which has increased tenfold in Central and South America over the last decade, mostly in energy, mining and infrastructure. “In essence, it seems that countries with new Chinese money rolling in are the ones where we see an increase in overseas jaguar trade,” Dr. Nijman said.

Chinese investment itself is not a negative thing, and in fact brings many benefits to Central and South America, said Sue Lieberman, vice president of international policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society who was not involved in the study. “But all efforts should be made to ensure that it is environmentally and socially sound.”

In addition to bringing new potential buyers of jaguar products into the country, development itself — especially if it entails cutting new roads into pristine areas or clearing forests — can facilitate poaching by putting wildlife and people in closer vicinity. A study published in March, for example, found that agricultural expansion in the Amazon led to increased jaguar poaching. When Chinese companies are linked to such development, it only increases the odds of poached animals entering trade.

“Chinese investment into deforestation accelerates trade — it’s connected,” Ms. Morcatty said.

The pattern may be like one observed on the African continent. In a report published last year, Alfan Rija, a conservation ecologist at Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania, found that East Africans often hunt to fulfill Chinese demand, and that the majority of the 45 species they reported hunting — from elephants and rhinos to sea horses and hyenas — are purchased solely or primarily by Chinese individuals.

“Most of the Chinese here are on contract, and you see a similar thing in South and Central America where you have lots of Chinese companies developing things,” Dr. Rija said. “These development opportunities provide avenues for illegal trade.”

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“The worst of the trafficking in jaguar parts is not bones to replace tiger bones, but the canines for jewelry,” she said.

China is a major consumer of other big cat species, especially tigers, which have long been sought after for their bones and parts, used in traditional medicine. More recently, tiger teeth and claws have appeared for sale as jewelry. But as tiger populations have dwindled to fewer than 4,000 animals remaining in the wild, traders have looked to other sources to satiate demand, which jaguars might fulfill for some consumers.

Angela Nuñez, a biologist who formerly worked at Bolivia’s Ministry of Environment, said that Ms. Morcatty and her colleagues’ effort to quantify jaguar trade at the regional level mirrors those of smaller-scale studies that Ms. Nuñez and others have published in the past.

But the scale of the problem is almost certainly greater than what is reported in the new study, Ms. Nuñez said, because most countries in Central and South America do not keep official records of jaguar seizures. Detection can also be a challenge because of lack of resources.

Dr. Nijman suspects that jaguars — like elephants and rhinos in Africa — may be canaries in the coal mine for broader, as of yet unnoticed poaching in South and Central America of things like tortoises and orchids.

“By zooming in on the most high profile species, we get a view of what else is happening,” he said. “There’s no reason to assume it’s just jaguars being affected.”

According to Ms. Nuñez, the new research highlights “the need to develop regional strategic partnerships to join efforts toward stopping this threat.”

Chinese companies should also educate their employees about the illegality of jaguar trade and take steps to ensure their workers are not complicit in wildlife crimes, Dr. Lieberman said.

“It’s important to get ahead of the curve by working with Chinese companies and not just wait for a crisis,” she said. “It can be done in a very non-adversarial way.”

 

September 2020
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